People often cope with life’s challenges by saying that everything happens for a reason. Is that really the case?
I understand why people say things like “everything happens for a reason”, “if it’s for you, it won’t go by you”, or other such messages that may appear psychologically comforting. When life throws a brick at you, you might find it reassuring to say everything happens for a reason. It might help you cope with disappointments and pain.
Certainly, many people find this message to be psychologically appealing. It might seem there is a religious aspect to the idea, but US and UK studies have found many atheists also embrace the message. In one study, for example, a majority of atheists said they believed in fate and the idea life events happen for a reason. Research also shows children are inclined to think life events happen for a reason, such as to “send a sign” or to “teach a lesson”.
But is it true? My take is this is bad thinking and bad advice. Just think about this for a moment. Think of the six millions Jewish people murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Think of the children used as sex slaves by Isis in Syria and Iraq. Think of a case like Thomas Fritzl, the Austrian man who imprisoned and raped his daughter in a basement over a 24-year period, during which time she gave birth to seven children. Would anyone seriously argue that “everything happens for a reason” in these cases?
I don’t think so. So what do you do if you want to hold onto this belief? Do you say, “well, OK, there’s no rhyme or reason for some things, but I like to think there’s a reason for everything that happens in my life”? If so, how can you reconcile these contradictory statements? Isn’t it irrational?
The importance and power of reason shouldn’t be underestimated. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has always emphasised the importance of being a personal scientist, of weighing up the evidence for and against our thoughts and beliefs so we can correct distorted thinking and manage our emotions. The problem with much anxious and depressed thinking isn’t solely that it’s negative or unhelpful; it’s that the ideas the person may hold (“I’m useless”, “I’m helpless”, “I’m not capable”) are unreasonable and untrue. Critical thinking skills that help you stay calm and solve problems are hugely important. The problem is, you can’t turn reason on and off like a tap. If you decide everything happens for a reason simply because you want to believe this is the case, you’re allowing your feelings to dictate your thinking – a bad habit that can get you into trouble.
There can be other unpleasant consequences to the belief that everything happens for a reason. Firstly, people who have suffered a personal tragedy, or who are going through a tough time for one reason or another, may find the message unhelpful or even offensive.
Secondly, the idea everything is part of an unfolding plan can cause people to believe that ultimately, the world is a fair place where good actions are rewarded and bad actions punished – a belief that sometimes results in victim-blaming.
Thirdly, sayings like “everything happens for a reason” and “if it’s for you, it won’t go by you” can reflect an excessive aversion to negative emotions. Negative emotions don’t feel good, but they are a part of life. Emotional avoidance is one of the main drivers of many psychological problems, so it’s important to fully recognise this reality.
Instead of saying everything happens for a reason, try tweaking the message so that it’s not in conflict with reality. Can you learn and grow from difficult experiences? Yes. Can they make you stronger? Yes. Can some good come out of bad experiences? Yes.
The late cognitive therapist Albert Ellis argued that emotional maturity meant not only accepting that we live in a world of probability and chance, one where there are no absolute certainties, but that there is nothing at all horrible about living in an uncertain world. The fact life can be random doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of meaning or wonder – far from it.